This Week in TampaCuse

In addition to a mailbag (check), I’ve wanted to do a regular blog entry, jotting down some thoughts that come to me usually at really inconvenient times. There are few things as frustrating than being in a meeting at work and thinking, “Oh THAT’S what they’re planning with Cedric Paquette!” These are too long for Twitter and I want to leave the mailbag to reader questions. So, here goes… some random thoughts on the week in the Lightning organization… aka TampaCuse (I really should have copyrighted that when I had the chance, especially after Jon Cooper used it).

1. Tyler Johnson is good at the hat tricks. What a way to introduce yourself to the continental media who was too fixated on a first-overall pick to really take TJ seriously. On a Leafs broadcast the other night they said MacKinnon was “hands down” the Calder winner. I hate the phrase “hands down.” As if the door is completely shut. Nothing like a hatter against the frontrunner to announce your presence. Johnson’s story is eerily similar to Martin St. Louis’, minus an NHL organization giving up on him too early. BUT… I don’t think Johnson will win the Calder. Not because he’s not good enough, but what happens when Stamkos returns? TJ could move down to the third line and to PP2, which means fewer minutes and fewer quality minutes. The wildcard in Johnson’s Calder race could be another rookie – Nikita Kucherov. If the two end up on the same line – as I expect – then Kucherov will have to play the St. Louis role while JT Brown plays the Palat role. They’ll get the benefit of facing the third best line the opposition can throw at them, which will be a nice break for Johnson, who has faced top defensive lines while with Mr. St. Louis. Hopefully he’s at least a finalist. Watch out for Jacob Trouba, or as Paul Kennedy called him, “Yacob Trouba.” #hockeyannouncerproblems

2. I couldn’t be happier for Mark Barberio. This is the defenseman that was the motor for the championship Norfolk team. His emergence – if it continues – will lessen the need for a puck-moving defenseman at the deadline. One is still needed, just not as bad. If only he was a righty. This may be disheartening for some fans that have to have a whipping boy, but keep focused on the big picture and you’ll be okay.

3. The other defenseman in the organization making a move right now is our Prospect of the Week, Dylan Blujus. There may be a slight sigh of relief from the Channelside offices that he’s starting to produce like a top-40 pick. He’s 10 picks away from being a first rounder. That’s a lot of pressure.

4. The only thing more disappointing that Syracuse’s defense right now is the AHL Live site that broadcasts them. What a horrific product. AHL Live, not Syracuse’s D, though it’s in danger of falling into that area. Syracuse desperately needs Andrej Sustr to get healthy (nose/face injury). Witkowski-Taormina can’t take every defensive shift, though that’s what it would take for Syracuse to flirt with the playoffs again. Sustr and at least one more impact defenseman are needed (JP Cote demotion?). They’re not getting the defensive production they should from experienced D like Mormina and Nesterov, to name two. They need a quality second pair.

5. Speaking of Nesterov, a lot of his mistakes are mental this year, which is very disheartening. You can’t blame that on the language barrier or playing in the States for the first time. He was much more composed for Russia at the WJC’s the last few years, where he struggled physically against the bigger/better competition like Sweden and Canada. He’s got another year on his contract. I think if you hooked Julien BriseBois up to a lie detector he’d admit they expected more from him. I expected him to struggle physically, but not mentally.

6. I think Lightning management would also admit they didn’t expect this much this soon from Luke Witkowski. He moves the puck better than expected and he’s got the maturity of a college graduate who played under a former NHL coach (Andy Murray, Western Michigan). I cringe to think where Syracuse would be without him. His character is off the charts, as we already knew, but it’s good to see. No wonder he was captain at Fargo (USHL) and co-captain at WMU.

7. More on defense: Slater Koekkoek is good. Really good. Top-10 pick good. Yeah, I said it. He’ll get back on prospect-lovers’ radars in the next couple years if he stays healthy. He wasn’t named captain of Windsor for nothing despite only being there a year. I was also impressed with him as an interview subject at camp. Accountable and professional.

8. I like the Lightning staying after Reto Suri, but I just don’t see how he fits into next year’s club without some major movement. Currently the top-10 forwards on the Lightning (including Stamkos) aren’t scheduled to go anywhere (no UFAs), plus you’ve got Drouin, Connolly, Panik, Erne, and Namestnikov trying to get in. Now add Suri to that group. Hmmm… Teddy Purcell is the only one I could see moving, and Tedward doesn’t have a no trade clause. That’s an offseason issue, though.

9. Can someone explain to me how Victor Hedman isn’t getting more attention? The kid is a budding star. He just passed 300 games, which we at BP have preached for years as the corner for young defensemen to turn before they “get it” in the NHL. Enjoy the product of proper development. And those who were ready to throw him away after 50, 150, or 200 games, shame on you. NHL defensemen don’t fall off trees. As for you, Sweden... really? He really wasn’t good enough for your Olympic RESERVE squad? REALLY? I don’t get it.

10. Back to Syracuse. I’ve been asked if coaching is the main issue, as players aren’t playing up to their potential. I don’t think that’s the main culprit for the Crunch being 10 points out of a playoff spot. Blame quick development (Kucherov, Sustr) and injuries to the big club. I don’t think TB wrote down the most-used Syracuse lineup as the one they thought they’d have defending the conference title. We’re used to seeing 2+ lines capable of scoring and they’ve been trying to survive with one scoring line, some pluggers, and some green rooks. Someone made the comment that they can’t finish. Well, that takes skill to do it consistently and there aren’t many left on the roster that can. Fortunately Panik is down there again and Tanner Richard is showing signs of adjusting to a new league. Remember how long it took Namestnikov to adjust in his rookie year? Stay patient with Richard. Be patient with Zettler and Cull, too. Zettler did well after Cooper’s promotion last year and he knows the system. You have to have proper pieces, though.

11. Richard Panik’s game is lost right now, so the demotion to Syracuse was necessary. There’s a thought out there that Panik can’t be his best without Cooper, but he wasn’t at his best WITH Cooper this year, plus Panik was a monster for Zettler last year in the playoffs. He fell in the draft due to possible motivation issues and lack of a complete game, and he showed both on Sunday against Bridgeport. His man off an own-zone faceoff was allowed to circle from the RW into the center of the ice and let go an uncontested wrist shot while Panik watched. He was out two shifts later (team was down by one in the third period) so there was no immediate discipline, but that film room session won’t be pretty. He knows better. Don’t close the book on him just yet.

12. Looking at next year, there doesn’t appear to be skill coming into Syracuse on the forward lines aside from Tanner Richard and Cedric Paquette having a year of pro hockey under their belts. I can’t see both Connolly and Panik in the AHL for long, if at all next year. Signing Russian dynamo Nikita Gusev would help, but there haven’t been any reports that he’s interested in coming over, and if he does, will he settle for an AHL gig? Yzerman/BriseBois will have to get aggressive signing AHL vets that can contribute offensively. Henri Ikonen is a complimentary winger in the mold of JT Brown. He’s not going to carry a line offensively as a rookie. I don’t see Joel Vermin carrying a line either, though he’ll be a nice addition. Tampa could draft/sign young prospects to fit. It could be a long time before Tampa’s affiliate sees a group as special as the Norfolk Cup team and Syracuse finalists again. As for Suri, from the reports and history with players like him, it will likely be the NHL or Finland for him. Sorry, Syracuse. (not confirmed)

13. Nate Thompson’s becoming a quality faceoff specialist, which the Lightning desperately need. If Tampa Bay’s going to make a playoff run, Thompson needs to watch endless film of Guy Carbonneau or Yanic Perreault. Dave Andreychuk was the specialist for the 2004 Cup team. Every successful team has one. If Thompson slows in this area, faceoff man could be a target for Yzerman at the deadline.

14. I look at what Jon Cooper is doing for the Lightning right now and I glare in the Oilers’ general direction and appreciate Cooper even more. Edmonton’s excuse has been too much youth, and they arguably have more high-end youth than Tampa Bay does. They haven’t been winning, obviously. Don’t forget Edmonton passed on Cooper for Ralph Krueger two off-seasons ago. Oops.

15. If you missed the note in our Juniors update, with the return of Sabres first rounder Mikhail Grigorenko to the Quebec Remparts, Lightning prospect Adam Erne was moved from center to wing. He was drafted as a wing, but had been playing center (and quite well) in Quebec City. He’s not playing with Grigorenko, but it was encouraging the other night that Erne was named second star of a game despite not registering a point. On the road. That’s rare.

16. Fantasy Tip: If Gustav Nyquist is available, scoop him up. He was named second star this week and has been getting quality minutes (18-20) in Zetterberg's absence. Sooner or later the Red Wings are going to make a run. If you're more comfortable waiting until next week until Z's injury report is updated, then fine. Nyqvist may not be there, though.

17. This week’s must-follow on Twitter is @icethetics. If you’re into sports logos, jerseys, etc, he and @sportslogosnet are great follows. I have to point out that @icethetics is a Lightning fan, too.